China’s new air defense zone over the disputed East China Sea has raised concerns of an international air- or sea-based accident that could escalate into a regional crisis, according to U.S.-based experts.
In November last year, China introduced the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), requiring all aircraft entering the area which overlaps with similar zones established by neighbors Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to notify Beijing beforehand or face unspecified defensive measures.
The announcement has drawn criticism from regional leaders because the new zone involves requirements that are not imposed in other such zones and also includes contested maritime areas, such as the Japanese administered Senkaku islands, known as the Diaoyu islands in China and the South Korea-claimed Socotra Rock, known as Suyan Jiao in China.
While Beijing’s unilateral move has added to tensions in East Asia, U.S. analysts warned of the prospect of an accident occurring in the sensitive area that could escalate into a regional crisis.
“The biggest risk … in these areas is an unintended accident or some unpredictable development,” Kurt Campbell, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told a Washington conference focused on China’s ADIZ.
“[For example], an exhausted fisherman who has just ‘had it’ decides to charge for another vessel and then that local incident creates a crisis,” said Campbell, who now heads The Asia Group, a Washington-based advisory and investment group specializing in the Asia-Pacific region.
“I think there is virtually no chance of some sort of larger armed conflict preplanned. It will be some local crisis, and then how the governments respond to it.”
According to the Nov. 23 announcement by the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, foreign aircraft in the new zone will be expected to identify their flight plan, maintain radio communication, maintain operation of their radar beacon system, and display insignia indicating their nationality and registration.
The aircraft are also expected to “follow instructions,” with those who refuse facing “emergency defensive measures” from the Chinese military.
Following the announcement, Japan’s Air Self-Defence Force scrambled two fighter jets to intercept two Chinese aircraft entering the air zone near the disputed Senkaku islands.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has demanded that Beijing revoke the “one-sided” measures and vowed to protect Japan’s air and sea space.
South Korea on Nov. 25 summoned a Chinese diplomat to protest the creation of the zone, and the country’s Ministry of Transport said it would not recognize the ADIZ. Seoul later extended its own ADIZ over the disputed waters, which include Korea-administered Socotra Rock.
The U.S. State Department labeled the creation of the zone a “unilateral action” and on Nov. 26, Washington flew two B-52 bombers from Guam through the ADIZ, with the Pentagon claiming that the aircraft had not been observed or contacted by Chinese aircraft.
President Barack Obama’s administration, however, advised American commercial airlines to comply with Beijing’s demands, but it was made clear that the decision did "not indicate U.S. government acceptance of China's requirements."
Making nations ‘uncomfortable’
Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank in Washington, said that China’s ADIZ was specifically established to make Japan and the U.S., which is obligated to defend it through a security treaty, “uncomfortable.”
“One of the unique aspects of China’s ADIZ is that, unlike most other countries’ ADIZs, it’s not just aircraft flying towards China, but aircraft flying parallel to China,” he said.
“Well who flies parallel to China? The U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force—surveillance flights … part of this is making us and Japan uncomfortable and uncertain operating in the region.”
Green said that while the new ADIZ is unlikely to lead to any kind of military action against civilian aircraft, “it does moderately increase the tension.”
“I would worry much more about what happens at sea than what happens in the air with this ADIZ.”
Beijing’s action has also prompted concerns that it may create a similar zone in the South China Sea, where several confrontations have taken place between vessels from China and ships from Southeast Asian nations with which it is involved in territorial disputes.
China routinely refers to a nine-dash line which takes in about 90 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometer (1.35 million square mile) South China Sea on Chinese maps. It also cuts into the 200-mile (322-kilometer) exclusive economic zones of all the coastal states in the South China Sea.
Campbell said that as China has extended the range of its seafaring vessels into the East and South China Seas, they have “rubbed up against existing deployments” by nations like the United States and others in the regions, without establishing ground rules on how to interact, and the ADIZ is an attempt to protect those interests.
“You have a number of deeply unpredictable factors at play among countries which have a lot of historical tensions, their militaries don’t have a lot of interactions with one another [and] no agreed procedures or protocols about how to handle an incident should it occur,” he said.
The U.S. has sought over the last several years to enlist China in a series of discussions Campbell said were aimed at “establishing the rules of the road.”
“Our forces are out there, they are going to be out there, we’re going to sail near one another,” he said.
“We need to know how we will operate in close proximity. We have to have protocols in case there is an accident.”
Finding common ground
Campbell said that attempts to set up agreed-upon rules of engagement have achieved little success because China is reluctant to reveal limitations of its capabilities and, due to existing tensions between the ruling Chinese Communist Party and the military, Beijing does not want its armed forces engaged in diplomacy.
Additionally, he said, the Chinese do not want the U.S. to regularly operate close to their borders.
“They’re worried that if we come up with these agreements, they’re like giving—in their view—seat belts to speeders,” he said.
“We [would] have greater confidence operating near their borders, because then if there were a crisis, we’d have an ability to get out of it. And they don’t want us to have that confidence operating near them.”
China is also concerned that such agreements would appear similar to mechanisms used during the Cold War between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, Campbell said, “and China does not want to trigger in the American political calculus that China is a latter-day Soviet Union.”
Lastly, he said, China prefers to use uncertainty about its capabilities as a deterrent, making nations like the U.S. more cautious about operating in disputed areas.
“So because of all of that … [we have] very deep differences in strategic culture and approach, and that is the challenge of the next 20 years—to try to find some common ground,” he said.
“And I will tell you, [with] the frenetic quality of American diplomacy, we’re going to have to really focus on this. At political and military levels, we’re going to have to work with our allies to get agreement on what the necessary components of an operating system would be.”